Truth under attack


Connect: It's been a notable year for natural disasters: the Pakistan earthquake, Hurricane Katrina devastating New Orleans and the ongoing clean-up from the tsunami in southeast Asia on St Stephen's Day last year. But perhaps even more alarmingly, it's been a year in which faith in official sources has been shattered equally disastrously, because man-made power has repeatedly told lies.

It is, of course, impossible to be certain that this year has been particularly dreadful for official lies. It's possible that a large proportion went undetected in other years, which may have been as bad or even worse.

But 2005 seemed to reek of institutional deceit. Governments, armies, banks, police, media - it was difficult to know the trustworthy from the reverse. Ultimately, it was depressing.

Sure, spin, PR and perspective are invariable elements of political propaganda; that being the case, "being economical with the truth", as the euphemism has it, is accepted as part of political power. That may be unfortunate, but it is arguably inevitable; we're only people, after all. Yet blatant, flagrant, deliberate lying constitutes a weapon of mass destruction guaranteed to annihilate us from within.

The climate of truth-telling, obfuscation, and deliberate lying is invariably set by those with the most power. The people with most power at present are the George W Bush administration and its mega-wealthy, corporate and media backers. We know, however, that spokesmen and women for this cabal have not just put cases that best serve their interests. They have lied deliberately and repeatedly.

They have lied over WMDs, for instance. They might argue that they believed their own dope - maybe some idiots did because they wanted to - but would you believe them? They have lied over Fallujah, they have lied over "rendition", they have lied over keeping gulags in eastern Europe. In Britain, the police have lied over the shooting of the innocent Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes.

So official sources - the lifeblood of journalism told in the institutional voices of great media outlets - don't just "massage" a story. They tell lies. Perhaps it's always been so, but it appears to have become more contemptuous and pervasive in recent years. Look at the effect lie-telling has had on the New York Times, the most respected journalistic organ in the US.

As a result of "pro-attack on Iraq" lies told to and reported by the suspiciously eager NYT reporter Judith Miller, the paper has lost much credibility. Coming so soon after its Jayson Blair scandal (he simply concocted and stole stories) and the general media climate of fear in the US - Fox News, reporters embedded with the US military in Iraq, no coverage of returning body bags - it's clear what's happening.

The media have been emasculated, cowed and rendered increasingly redundant. They can continue to make profits, of course, because of the interest in and profitability of sleaze and "celebrity" yarns. But the serious business of media - of holding political, economic and social powers responsible to the public - is under sustained attack, ideologically and practically.

It is difficult, after all, to make a bob pursuing serious stories against the PR-led leaks, denials and counter-denials of sleaze-mongering football players, actors or soap nubiles. Too much media has been conscripted to the highly profitable formulae that aim at human prurience. The result is a still-vibrant but lopsided media careering wildly towards its own destruction in the pursuit of profit.

In that sense it is consuming itself and causing problems for succeeding generations. It's all, arguably, part of globalisation. Ireland has prospered materially from globalisation with the result that the country has become increasingly wealthy, selfish and right wing. A country, it seems, becomes conservative when it has something to conserve.

That's an expected process and one that, at present, still seems to have a time to go. But the danger is that valuable as well as disposable elements of the society become consumed in the change. As the ad says: "forgiveness is for losers". Like the media, academia seems certain to prostitute itself to industry, but the long-term implications of this sell-out are worrying.

It could be that cautions against the direction in which a globalised society seems headed are tiresome and unnecessary. But Ireland, following an American economic model, is becoming increasingly like the US. This is good and bad. The question is whether the good will outweigh the bad or vice versa.

The US has a wealthy, hi-tech, deeply unfair and provincial society. With a population of more than 280 million, it has people of every political, religious and ethical persuasion. But its dominant primeval, utterly ruthless, anti-union business ideology (forgiveness is for losers, remember) and the depth of its divisions - racial and class divisions in particular - poison it.

Already, Irish society is polarised between those with too much and those with too little. Perhaps some capitalist dynamism must be sacrificed for the sake of a better society. The barrage of official Irish lies that characterised 2005 is also symptomatic of a society in difficulties. Soon we really will have to decide between the economy and society . . . and that's no lie.